Ralph Alan Cohen

Listening for Language with Ralph Alan Cohen at the Second Biennial Shakespeare Conference

Date published: November 16, 2016

At last week’s Second Biennial Shakespeare Conference, Ralph Alan Cohen, Ph.D., presented the keynote address, “Shakespeare’s Language - As We Like It.”

As a preface to Cohen’s address, President Keefe highlighted the University of Dallas’s dedication to the Western Intellectual tradition and its Great Works. “This conference is a celebration of the joy and the soul of the humanities. It is an opportunity to share in this passion and love,” Keefe said.

Scott Crider, Ph.D., professor of English and associate dean of Constantin College, then introduced Cohen, noting Cohen’s distinction as co-founder and director of mission at the American Shakespeare Center and Gonder professor of English at Mary Baldwin College.

“It is difficult to imagine a more distinguished career than his,” Crider said.

Cohen, who both teaches and directs Shakespeare’s plays, “was very distressed to hear” of certain efforts to “translate” these texts from Shakespeare’s English to contemporary English — both of which, he stressed, are modern English.

Though Cohen admitted the value of such “translation” as an exercise in understanding Shakespeare’s meaning, he called it “a terrible abdication” of the bard’s efforts as an artist.

“The project assumes that Shakespeare’s language is not our language and in so doing, promotes ‘Shakes-fear,’” Cohen said. “It ignores the joy of acquiring language.”

How, then, can ‘Shakes-fear’ be cured? Audiences and actors, readers and professors alike must turn to the dramatic experience and the invention of words, both of which Shakespeare employed to great effect.

In this effort, Cohen then took the audience through the first sentence of every Shakespearean play, tallying the number of words used that are no longer currently in usage. Out of over two hundred words, only eight were marked, proving that Shakespeare’s language is indeed English as we know it today.

Shakespeare not only wrote in modern English, but he also enriched it. As England was one of the countries farthest removed from the Renaissance geographically, Cohen noted that playwrights such as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson faced the difficult task of bringing elevated art forms to the people.

“Shakespeare’s audiences went to the theater to get new words,” Cohen said. “Every playwright felt an obligation to invent new words.”

Cohen then employed contemporary examples to illuminate the revolutionary ways in which Shakespeare practiced his craft. Citing Straight Outta Compton and Hamilton, Cohen argued that artists throughout history have used various contractions, regional diction, slang and a host of other devices that can initially seem confusing to audiences — much like Shakespeare’s language. With the help of context and skilled actors, however, such language can actually enrich the dramatic experience.

But the dramatic experience, according to Cohen, is concerned with more than just mere plot.

“We don’t listen for the story,” Cohen said.

This thesis brought together the various themes with which Cohen had presented to the audience over the course of his address. Shakespeare notoriously stole from classical tradition, history and folklore for many plots of his plays. Everyone, Cohen argued, knows where many stories are going because they are familiar to us. A playwright shows his skill by crafting the language to draw and maintain the interest of the audience members, who continue to watch or read because they are interested not in what the story is but rather in how it is being told.

Though Shakespeare built upon established literary tradition in his works, his language proved to be anything but stable — he contracted words and expanded the English vocabulary. His plays explore a variety of themes but everywhere focus upon language.

“The melancholy fool from As You Like It [for example] suggests that Shakespeare took both delight and fear in the instability of words,” Cohen said.

Evident throughout Cohen’s address was his deep knowledge and enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare enthusiasts, teachers, writers, speakers, students, and the general public enjoyed an exciting and intriguing exploration of Shakespeare's art.

“I like plays. Can you tell?” Cohen said with a laugh.


Join us as we continue to celebrate 50 years of graduate education at the Braniff Graduate School of Liberal Arts. Upcoming events include the 3rd Annual BGSA Conference “On Friendship,” the “Can Poetry Save the World” symposium, and “Expressions and Archives” Braniff Faculty and Alumni art exhibit. Learn more at udallas.edu/braniff/50th.

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